Train Farce Shows Israeli Public Still Putting Soldiers on Pedestal

If you thought IDF worship had disappeared — as it should have — think again. The public is only concerned with its young soldiers getting to their bases, not the elderly or other groups.

An Israeli soldier waits for a train at a train station.
Tomer Appelbaum

Some steak joints here used to offer uniformed soldiers half-price meals. Those were the glory days of the Israel Defense Forces. Generals, by the way, ate for free back then. Plenty of cows have been slaughtered since, there are fewer steak joints and fewer discounts for soldiers. That’s good. There are quite a few groups in Israeli society more deserving of a discount.

But if you thought IDF worship had disappeared — as it should have — think again. The doomsday weapon in the Shabbat-work rail farce is the transportation of soldiers. That was almost the only reason we heard against the scandalous halting of the train service just prior to and post-Shabbat: how will soldiers get to their bases? Not the elderly, not the poor, not laborers and not the sick. Soldiers are practically the only people anybody cares about around here.

Journalist Dan Margalit announced that he will be at the train station this morning, ready to drive soldiers in his Honda. How moving. No one will transport the sick or the elderly — they are civilians, so who cares about them? (Isn’t it nobler, for example, to transport the sick from West Bank checkpoints to hospitals in Israel, as former State Prosecutor Eran Shendar and others do?) On our street corners, they’re once again begging for the IDF — that fat, rich army — and the punch line to this bad joke is that some even contribute. If we thought the public had outgrown the cult of the army, this is proof it has not.

Out of the total of 213,000 daily travelers on trains in Israel, soldiers are not the majority. Of the 176,000 IDF soldiers, combat troops are not the majority. It’s nice to know that the people back their soldiers. But when compassion and social sensitivity are directed only at them, that is infuriating and distorted.

The only thing some IDF soldiers lack is something to do during their boring and unnecessary service. Even the combat troops have never really taken part in battles against a real army (and are not expected to in the near future). The truth is that most of them are police officers (and jailers) in army uniforms. They chase stone-throwing kids and sometimes shoot them at checkpoints; raid a private home in the middle of the night to confiscate a toaster funded by Hamas; stand at checkpoints and select people; and haze an entire refugee camp in order to find three rusty guns and to alleviate their boredom. They are soldiers in the occupation army. A few actually commit real crimes and abuse the defenseless. And others, whose work is highly valued, listen in on “the enemy,” whose identity is not always clear, nor the reason for surveilling them. Afterward, they are snapped up by the high-tech sector.

That is what most IDF soldiers do. They come from wealthy homes and poor ones; the entire people is the army, except for those who aren’t — about half of young people in Israel.

They serve in the army because this is a necessity in every country, but especially here given the situation. Most go into the army because they are obedient by nature and because it’s the law. And just as society doesn’t particularly respect people who pay their taxes as the law requires, there’s no special reason to respect military service — certainly not someone who serves as a quartermaster at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv or as a communications monitor at the Glilot intelligence base.

The understandable and natural respect for those who risk their lives, or even give their lives, is not devoid of troubling questions. Those who go into combat service these days, which usually means brutal service in the territories, don’t always do so for the best or most admirable of reasons. Military service is an unavoidable necessity — nothing more, nothing less.

The soldiers are our children, but the elderly are our grandparents. Without the trains in service, the elderly are more helpless than a 19-year-old soldier. Look at the people who use public transportation in Israel: Is there any group more worthy of compassion? Is a soldier’s speedy arrival to their base more important than the arrival of others to their destinations? In the Israel of 2016, the answer is unequivocal and sad.